Cancer and meaning

The Fault in Our Stars is amazing. Even as someone who’s never experienced cancer directly (although I have a friend who survived after a year of chem), I feel like there’s a lot of room to go wrong writing about cancer. And at times, it feels as though John Green is dipping into a set of easy outs, overly sugary images (the scenes in Amsterdam come the closest, for me). But it’s just such a good book. It talks about suffering, about bullshit, and about how we get on with it. 

Part of what’s so loveable about the book is the characters – they’re just fantastic. Funny, smart, mature, courageous but vulnerable – they’re the people you wish you were. So before the first chapter’s done you’re cheering for them.

Another part that I love is the thinking, the reflections of his protagonist on the deaths around her, and her own questions. She’s an unflinching materialist, so all the questions she has are ones that resonate with me, and she doesn’t dodge them, or hesitate to call bullshit when she sees it. Reading comments on the wall page of a recently deceased cancer victim:

You’ll live forever in our hearts, big man. (That particularly galled me, because it implied the immortality of those left behind: You will live forever in my memory, because I will live forever! I AM YOUR GOD NOW, DEAD BOY! I OWN YOU! …)

At the same time, she arrives at a sort of peace, an understanding, contained in the idea  that ‘some infinities are bigger than others’. I won’t go into it more, or risk ruining the plot, but … it feels intensely good to see someone grappling with that question about meaning as a materialist, and perhaps finding something close to an answer.

Throughout the novel, the voice Green uses is that of someone who’s seen cancer from the inside, and who isn’t afraid to call the bullshit – that people tell themselves, that people tell each other, and that people tell to other people with cancer. It’s great.

In fact, part of what I love about this novel is that it strikes a fine balance – in a way, actually, that reminds me of Vonnegut. It talks about the shittiness of human suffering and the human experience without any easy outs or cheap answers – it tells it like it is, without any tolerance for bullshit or false comforts.

But at the same time, it feels like a celebration of life. A saddened one, a melancholy one, because it recognises the grief – but a richer one because of it.

I could babble on for a while about this. For now I’ll just say – go, read it.


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